As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.
I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.
Here are some of the titles which helped the most:
The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files
Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.
Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.
Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.
I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.
She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.
She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.
Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee
I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.
This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.
Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.
Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.
She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.
But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.
One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.
It makes you shudder with horror.
The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).
Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.
The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.
Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.
Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.
Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.
I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.
When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.
Odette by Jerrard Tickell
I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.
It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.
This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)
When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.
She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.
I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’
The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.
Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.
There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.
About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.
From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.
As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.
It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.
In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.
In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.
It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.
Granny Was A Spy by Jose Villiers
I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.
From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.
Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.
Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.
Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.
Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.
In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.
People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.
Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.
Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’. I had to have this detail in my tale.
Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.
When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.
But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.
All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.
There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.
Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.